Pancakes, served with a side of science

There are few pleasures in life that exceed the simple joy of devouring home-cooked pancakes on a Sunday afternoon. I’m not much of a cook, but brunch is by far my favorite meal. So I decided that it’s time to take matters into my own hands, and improve my pancake making skills. Oddly enough, the first job I ever had as a college freshman was as a breakfast chef in my dorm. Back then, I’d make pancakes from a box, using Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix. I’ve since realized that it’s not much harder to make pancakes from scratch, and it’s a whole lot more gratifying. The quest for the perfect pancake is something of a lifelong journey. But unlike other boring journeys, this one is delicious, and served with syrup. Mmmm.

So where do we begin? I favor buttermilk pancakes myself, for their light and fluffy texture. If you go online and look for recipes, you’ll find plenty that claim to be the BEST buttermilk pancakes. Are these recipes really all that different? What sets them apart? And what’s the essence of a truly excellent buttermilk pancake?

Like any scientist worth their salt (sorry), I decided to answer this question with a graph. After all, the whole is just the interaction of its parts. So let’s take apart what the web thinks of as the perfect pancake.

Above, I plotted the ingredients that go into a buttermilk pancake, according to eight highly rated online recipes. I normalized the recipes so that they all have the same amount of flour. You’ll see that there are certain essentials that you just don’t mess with. You definitely need one egg for every cup of flour. And there isn’t much variation in how much salt or baking soda you put in. On the other hand, these recipes vary widely in how much butter or sugar they include. Presumably, the excellence of a pancake is less sensitive to variations in these other ingredients. But which recipe do you follow? What’s a good empiricist to do?

Continue reading Pancakes, served with a side of science

Woohoo! I made it to Open Lab!

I’m totally floored. Two days ago, I received an email from veteran science writer Jennifer Oullette, informing me that one of my posts had made the cut for Open Lab.

This is me when I saw Jennifer's email in my inbox
And this is me after reading it

If you’re unfamiliar with Open Lab, it’s an annual print compilation of some of the best science writing on the web. Scientific American books has agreed to publish this edition, and it will hit bookstores sometime next fall. The editors Jennifer Oullette and Bora Zivkovic faced the daunting task of winnowing down 720 submissions to 51 finalists. The complete list of their selections is available here, and you can read about their selection criteria in Jennifer’s wonderful defense of the blogging form.

I’m incredibly humbled to be included, especially along such a star studded blogging cast. I’m stunned that I’ll be sharing a book with some of the names on that list. I started this blog less than a year ago, because I couldn’t quite contain my excitement about science. This selection means that I must be doing something right!

But it means more than that. The online science writing community is a group of crazily passionate people. They have families and busy day jobs. Yet they manage to find the time to build something beautiful, something they care deeply about. It’s an incredible meritocracy where the biggest names tirelessly plug the work of the newcomers. The only thing that matters is that what you create is interesting.

My blogging has slowed down to a standstill of late. But rather than offer a lame excuse about being busy, I’m instead going to take inspiration from my fusion powered blogparents. Everyone’s busy. Regardless, I’m going to strive to work harder, to stay up later, and most importantly, to stay interesting. And of course, I won’t forget to have a lot of fun along the way.


Honeybees have handy knees!

A few days ago, I was walking home and passed by a bush of white flowers in full bloom. They looked pretty spectacular lit by the afternoon sun. On taking a closer look, I realized that what I thought were flowers were actually flower bunches, each of them made up of hundreds of tiny flowers. And on each bunch, there was a single honeybee zipping about from flower to flower.

Watching these bees through my camera lens, I could see something quite interesting. As they landed on the flowers, they would kick up grains of pollen that would rise up like dust. And then the bees would do something quite odd – they would fiddle with their knees. I zoomed in to see what was going on.

There’s something quite peculiar about this photograph. What’s that fleshy appendage stuck to the knees of the honeybee? It looks, to me, somewhat like a human ear. And even stranger – the bees don’t have it when they arrive on the flower. But in a few minutes this thing begins to grow, and in about 15 minutes it’s as engorged as you see in the picture.

In addition to collecting nectar from flowers, honey bees also collect pollen. And what you’re seeing in these photographs is an incredible adaptation that helps bees go about their business of collection. It’s called a pollen basket, and here is how it works.

Bees are hairy creatures, and they get covered in pollen. They rake themselves clean with combs that are built into the inner surfaces of their hind legs. Next, they move all this collected pollen to a joint between the segments of their legs – their knees. This joint functions as a pollen press, and it squeezes the pollen into handy little pellets. But these pellets need to be stored somehow. And so, here is the next adaptation. The outer surface of the hind leg is concave, and it is covered in many small hairs. It’s a basket! This is where the bees store these compressed pollen pellets, and that’s what you see in the above picture. The basket is actually transparent, and so the fleshy color in the pictures above is the color of pollen.

The weird thing about this is that the basket is open at the bottom. So why doesn’t the pollen fall out? That’s because there’s a single strong hair that prevents this from happening, which functions as the lid of the basket.

Although I couldn’t quite make out the details, watching this elaborate packing process through the zoom lens was quite mesmerizing and I was merrily snapping away. The bees didn’t seem to notice me at all, but I realized that I was getting odd looks from my neighbors, so I decided it was time to take my leave.

Buzzing off..

Launch speed of the leaping sifaka

Update: Added discussion on launch angle at the end of the post.

Edit: The final numbers in this post went through a few rounds of revision. What is the world coming to, when you have to track down missing factors of 2 in your blog posts?!

This week, I’m looking at the strategies and mechanisms by which different animals solve the problem of getting around. I started off by writing about how birds and aquatic animals conserve energy on-the-go. This post is another spinoff on the theme of locomotion.

Here’s a clip from one of my favorite documentaries, David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals. It shows the incredible sifaka lemur of Madagascar, a primate that has a really remarkable way of getting around. (If the embed doesn’t work, you can watch it here)

As they launch out from the trees, they almost look like they’re defying gravity. And so, taking inspiration from Dot Physics, I thought it might be interesting to put physics to use and analyze the flight of the sifaka.

I loaded the above video into Tracker, a handy open source video analysis software. I can then use Tracker to plot the motion of the sifaka. I chose to analyze the jump at about 21 seconds in. I like this shot because it isn’t in slow motion (that messes up the physics), the camera is perfectly still (we expect no less from Attenborough’s crew), and the lemur is leaping in the plane of the camera (there are no skewed perspective issues that would be a pain to deal with). The whole jump lasts under a second, but at 30 frames per second, there should be plenty of data points.

This is what it looks like when you track the sifaka’s motion:

The red dots are the position of the sifaka at every frame. That’s the data. In order to analyze it, we need to set a scale on the video. I drew this yellow line as a reference for 1 unit of size (call it 1 sifaka long). And how big is that?

If we believe this picture that I found on the National Geographic website, then a sifaka is about half the size of this folded arms dude.

Now, to the physics..

Continue reading Launch speed of the leaping sifaka

A revealing photograph

While looking around on Flickr for images for the previous post, I came across this captivating photograph taken by Toni Frissell.

More than meets the eye?

It’s a gorgeous shot on aesthetic grounds. Perfect lighting and composition, a beautiful subject, and a strikingly dramatic moment. And seen another way, it’s a metaphor for what Empirical Zeal is all about: diving beneath the surface, and looking at things from a different point of view.

It turns out that this photograph is a neat illustration of two interesting physical phenomena. Can you guess what they are? And here’s another (admittedly odd) question. Can we use this photograph to work out the density of this woman?

(Answers below the fold)

Continue reading A revealing photograph

Dude, what’s up with these surfer geese?

A friend of a friend of a friend (all kayakers) was recently out filming his buddies play in a huge wave. By chance, he recorded this incredible video. It shows a gaggle of geese floating down a river that is at its highest flow in 27 years. They start approaching a fairly intimidating wave (a gnarly wave, in the standard paddler’s lexicon). You can hear the wave roaring loudly..

What comes next is utterly surprising. Take a look at the video:

It looks like a dangerous situation, but these geese appear to be in control.

Seemingly effortlessly, they glide over to center of the river and catch the wave. They have incredible skill and control as they guide themselves right into the wave, while facing backwards. And they manage to surf it without being swept over. It looks like they are making a determined effort to stay there. You can even watch one of the geese that doesn’t quite make it, and it starts flapping its wings to get further upstream.

I did some cursory googling around, and I couldn’t find an example of this behavior being documented before. So what I’d like to know is, what is going on here? Are they in any real danger here? Maybe they are trying not to get separated from the young ones in the rapid, by collecting together at surfable waves. Or perhaps by surfing a wave, they can catch fish that are being swept up in the backflow. My friend Deepak pointed out that fly fisherman often fish near rapids, so there might be something to this idea.

However, I don’t see them feeding in this video. And if they judged a wave to be truly threatening, I would imagine that they could just as easily try to swim out of the way, or fly over it (although this may pose a new set of problems.)

But there is another explanation for their behavior, one that’s harder to verify empirically. Maybe, just maybe, what you are seeing are these geese having fun.

It could be that they’re just enjoying playing in the wave. And in doing so, they’re teaching the kayakers a thing or two about their sport.

What do you think is going on in the video? I’m curious to know. Post your thoughts in the comments below.

Sylvia’s super awesome maker show

I just bought an Arduino, which is a cheap open-source electronics board. You can program it from your computer and build all sort of interesting devices that can respond to their surroundings. It can take as inputs pretty much any kind of electronic sensor you can get your hands on (light, temperature, pressure, sound, force sensors, and countless others) and can use them to drive motors, switch things on and off, make music, run a web server, play pong, and so on. I just started tinkering around with it and it’s incredibly liberating to be able to get a computer to do something physical.

While looking around for interesting Arduino projects, I came across this incredible video via Make magazine. It’s an episode from a show hosted by Sylvia, a 9 year-old tinkerer and Arduino hacker.